Tikal is just two hours away from the Belizean border and remains one of the most popular attractions in Guatemala. Almost any traveler who visits the western part of Belize (San Ignacio Town) travels to Guatemala for the day to visit this majestic Maya site.
Located in the Peten Region of Guatemala, Tikal is an early classic to late classic Maya City. Here are 12 surprising things about Tikal:
1.) Tikal is one of the largest archaeological sites and urban centers of the pre-Columbian Maya Civilization.
2.) The name Tikal may be derived from ti ak'al in the Yucatec Maya language; and it is said to be a relatively modern name meaning "at the waterhole".
3.) The Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes passed within a few kilometers of the ruins of Tikal in 1525, however he didn’t mention them in his letters.
4.) There are traces of early agriculture in Tikal that dates as far as 1000 BC. A cache of Mamon ceramics for example, dates from about 700-400 BC were found in a sealed Chultun, a subterranean bottle-shaped chamber.
5.) The architecture of Tikal is built from limestone and includes the remains of temples that tower over 70 meters high, large royal palaces and a number of smaller pyramids, palaces, residences, administrative buildings, platforms and inscribed stone monuments.
6.) In 1979, Tikal was declared a UNESCO world heritage site.
7.) According to Archaeologists, Tikal was the capital of a conquest state that became one of the most powerful kingdoms of the ancient Maya.
8.) Tikal reached its apogee during the Classic Period, ca 200 to 900 AD during this time the city dominated much of the Mesoamerican region politically, economically and militarily.
9.) The Tikal National Park covers an area of 575.83 square kilometers and was created on May 26 1955 under the auspices of the Instituto de Antropologia e Historia and was the first protected area in Guatemala.
See also: Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave
10.) The population estimates for Tikal vary from 10,000 to as high as 90,000 inhabitants with the most likely figure being at the upper end of this range.
11.) The dynastic line of Tikal, founded as early as the 1st century AD, spanned 800 years and included at least 33 rulers.
A vessel with jade in lays from the tomb of Jasaw Chan K'awiil I beneath Temple I and bearing an effigy, probably that of the king.
12.) The tallest structure in Tikal is 65 meters in height and is the temple of the two-headed snake that was built by King Yaxkin Caan Choc in 470 A.D. This temple is a must climb for the adventurous!
About Tikal Mayan Ruins
Tikal National Park in Guatemala measures more than 220 square miles (575 square kilometers) in size, most of it pristine jungle. The park is also home to thousands of ruined buildings built by the ancient Maya, including the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Tikal that is roughly 6 square miles (16 square kilometers) in size and contains more than 3,000 buildings.
Tikal National Park itself is inside of the Maya Biosphere Reserve that measures 2.4 million acres (1 million ha) in size. First established in 1990 to protect the forests that were being decimated by illegal logging and unsustainable agricultural practices, the Maya Biosphere Reserve is one of the most important natural areas in the country.
Archeologists have determined that the Maya first arrived in the area of Tikal around 3,000 years ago. Since its humble beginnings, the mega city state became an important commercial, cultural, and religious center. The world-famous temples that now draw millions of tourists were built around the year 700 when Tikal rose to become the preeminent city in the Maya world, having a population of approximately 100,000 people.
For unknown reasons, the Maya civilization rapidly collapsed just 100 years later, and the city's vast structures were abandoned to the jungle. By the time the conquistador Hernan Cortes entered the area in 1525, few people remembered the great city lost in the jungle, and the Spanish warriors never realized that they had passed by so close to Tikal. Indeed, it wasn't until 1848 when an archeological expedition dispatched by the government of Guatemala officially re-discovered the city.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the government of Guatemala in conjunction with the Museum of the University of Pennsylvania laboriously cleaned and restored the site to its current condition. In 1979, the United Nations declared the entire city a World Heritage Site. Today, Tikal is an important cultural icon for Guatemala, similar to what the pyramids of Giza are to Egypt.
Amongst the many interesting finds at the site were dozens of stone pillars, each matched with a circular altar. Archeologists have determined that these were used to record the history of the rulers of Tikal, boasting about their many accomplishments. The pyramids of Tikal were used as astronomical observatories that the Maya used to calculate their extremely accurate 260-day calendar that meshes with modern 365-day calendars every 52 years.
Probably the most mysterious find ever discovered in Tikal are stone pillars that describe an event that happened in eastern Guatemala more than 400 million years ago.
Highlights of Tikal Mayan Ruins
The entire UNESCO World Heritage Site of Tikal is impressive but perhaps the most spectacular attraction is the city's Great Plaza, home to palaces, ceremonial buildings, stelae, carved altars, and the two giant pyramids known today as Temple I and Temple II.
The magnificent Temple I is 47 meters (154 feet) high, dedicated to Lord Jasaw Chan K'awil who died in the year 734 AD. Also known as the Temple of the Great Jaguar, the impressive structure had its pyramid added approximately 10 years following the death of the king. Although Temple I is closed to the public, archaeologists have discovered a temple at the top of the temple with three rooms and a corbel arch.
Believed to have been erected in the year 700, the adjacent Temple II, known as the Temple of the Mask, was constructed on the orders of Kasaw Chan K'awil. Deciphering the hieroglyphics in the structure, it is believed that Lord K'awil had the temple built for his wife, Lady 12 Macaw, although no tomb or human remains have been discovered inside. Lady 12 Macaw's pyramid reaches 38 meters (125 feet) to the sky overhead and is precisely oriented towards the rising sun, giving visitors an unparalleled view of the rest of the city and the surrounding jungle.
Slightly further out from the Grand Plaza is the Temple of the Double Headed Serpent. Officially known as Temple IV, the tallest pyramid in the city measures an astonishing 70 meters (230) feet high, constructed in 740 by Yik'in Chan Kawil, the son of Lord Jasaw Chan K'awil.
The fourth enormous structure in Tikal is known as the Temple of the Jaguar Priest or Temple III. Measuring a majestic 55 meters (180 feet) tall, Temple II is believed to be the final resting place of Lord Chi'taam, the last man to rule Tikal. The interior of Temple III still exhibits elaborate carvings but the temple is closed off to the public because the roof has sustained heavy damage.
The last of the large pyramids in Tikal is known as Temple V. Built around 750 AD, the structure stands 57 meters (187 feet) high and is a known mortuary site, but archaeologists have yet to identify whose remains lie inside. Temple VI, known as the Temple of the Inscriptions, is just 12 meters (39 feet) tall but contains more than 186 hieroglyphs describing the city's history.